Lakewood Committee Recycles Real Estate Scam

August 2nd, 2016

[Editor's Note: At 9:17 p.m. on August 2, at 6:50 p.m. on August 3, at 9:10 a.m. on August 4, at 10:00 p.m. on August 6 and at 5:13 p.m. on August 8, 2016, this story was edited for style, content and accuracy.]

In New Jersey's fastest-growing municipality, the fish are biting at Lake Shenandoah, an Ocean County park.

They're also biting at Town Hall.

Lakewood committeemen that had to catch and release an unsuspecting victim hooked in a real estate scam earlier this year are once again trolling the town's lucrative development waters for new investors to take their bait.

On January 21, members of the Lakewood Township Committee held a public land auction that included the sale of Block 1142, Lot 1 and Block 1135, Lot 1, which include undersized parcels claimed in title by California resident Kenneth Garzo.

Committeemen authorized the January land sale in an ordinance that included a disclaimer describing the parcels "as is, where is."

Buyer beware.

On June 2, committeemen approved a resolution authorizing a refund of the down payments totaling $205,000 for the parcels, which together would have brought a total of $2,050,000 to municipal coffers.

On August 4, committeemen are scheduled to hold second reading of an ordinance authorizing a public land sale of the same parcels. Once again, elected representatives will attempt to pull the wool over the eyes of unsuspecting bidders that do not realize that the disclaimer "as is, where is" refers to the parcels' defective titles.

In late 2014, the committee filed an action for condemnation of several parcels Garzo claims to own in the Cedarbridge Corporate Park. Garzo responded by filing a pro se motion with state Superior Court, challenging the township's action.

Garzo prevailed.

In May 2015, a state superior court judge ordered township officials to first negotiate a taking price with Garzo, who owns over 200 Lakewood parcels purchased in the 1950s by New York real estate investor Maximilian Hirshberg.

Committeemen decided it was cheaper to clear the title defect by selling the land to someone else.

On August 4, committeemen also will hold second reading of an ordinance authorizing a private land sale of Block 2.01, Lot 32, an undersized parcel located near Schindler Court, off Hope Chapel Road, at the request of an adjacent neighbor.

The land sale ordinance also includes the disclaimer "as is, where is."

According to public records, a majority of Lakewood committee members earn a living through the maintenance, sale, investiture or development of real estate properties in town.

A majority of Lakewood committee members stand to profit from the legislation they enact that grows their town into a city.

On August 4, they will once again attempt to adopt an ordinance on second reading that committeemen carried at their July 7 meeting, following comments by attorney Edward Liston of Toms River.

Liston represents real estate investor Laurie Leeds, who owns numerous Lakewood properties.

If approved, the ordinance would enable developers to request administrative approval of additions of 1,500 square feet or less to projects that previously received use approvals, in addition to administrative approval already permitted for previously approved site plans, or minor site plan improvements that meet the following requirements:

1.) The use must be a permitted use;

2.) The addition does not result in a variance from the parking requirements of Chapter XVIII of the township's code book, referred to as the Unified Development Ordinance (UDO);

3.) The addition does not intrude into any buffer area designated for environmental protection on a previously approved site plan or as specified by Chapter XVIII of the UDO;

4.) No substantial alterations of existing drainage as approved by the township engineer are permitted;

5.) Construction of the addition must be performed in conformance with all conditions of the development board's previous approval;

6.) The proposed addition or alteration must not violate any zoning ordinance requirement. However, the administrative officer may grant administrative site plan approval in the event that a preexisting condition on the property would require variances.

According to Liston, the ordinance is a violation of the state's Municipal Land Use Law (MLUL), which requires that a developer seeking variances for such an addition file for approval of an amended site plan from the development board that granted the project's original approval.

Liston asserted that the township ordinance would not pass judicial review.

The ordinance would benefit developers, but not their neighbors - just as would a similar ordinance scheduled for second reading at the committee's August 18 meeting.

The committee previously held first reading of the ordinance earlier this year, but carried it after a majority of their constituents turned out to oppose it.

At the Lakewood committee's March 3, 2016 meeting, Mayor Menashe Miller announced that committeemen had killed an ordinance on second reading. The ordinance would have permitted residential developers in the Oak Street Core to apply for administrative approval of minor subdivisions that did not require any variances.

He misspoke.

Under Robert's Rules of Order, the committee can "kill" an ordinance following public reading of it by having the presiding committeeman ask for a motion. If no other committeeman makes a motion or seconds it, the committee effectively "kills" the legislation, but can bring it back at a future meeting.

That did not happen prior to Miller's announcement.

This editor/reporter waited at the speaker's podium to discuss the ordinance during the required public forum that follows second reading of an ordinance. However, the township clerk did not read the ordinance, nor did committeemen allow this editor/reporter or any other member of the public to speak. Instead, committeemen discussed carrying the ordinance, but did not announce when it would be back on the committee's agenda.

It's officially back.

The August 2, 2016 meeting agenda of the Lakewood Planning Board included the Oak Street Core administrative approval ordinance as an item for discussion. Following discussion of the proposed ordinance, planning board members make their recommendations concerning it. Committee members may choose to include those recommendations in whole or in part, or they may simply choose to disregard them.

Planning board members already approved the proposed site plan ordinance that Liston discussed at the committee's July 7 meeting.

If adopted on second reading, both ordinances would result in fewer neighbors having the opportunity to influence development proposals affecting the value of their properties or their quality of life. The cost of developing residential properties in compliance with either ordinance would go down, while neighbors' cost to oppose such projects would go up through expensive court litigation.

For years, former Lakewood resident Brian Flannery, an engineer and planner now living in Jackson, testified on behalf of his clients' residential development projects by referencing the township's Smart Growth Plan, which calls for development of homes to meet the housing needs of Lakewood's projected population growth. However, the 2013 Lakewood Smart Growth Plan also calls for development of tax ratables that will employ its' citizens and promote the prosperity of the municipality.

At the committee's July 21 meeting, members killed an ordinance on second reading that would have promoted the development of jobs and tax ratables in Lakewood's industrial park, the second largest in the state.

The ordinance described Lakewood as the "home of a unique resource, the Lakewood Airport," which the Township committee believed would act as a catalyst for "positive commercial growth."

In order to realize that growth, the ordinance proposed that committeemen designate a portion of the industrial park where the airport is located as the Airport Business Commercial District "so that like-minded ventures will locate in the vicinity of the Airport and take advantage of the newly re-designed Parkway access."

The ordinance would have benefited the township's growing work force of homesteaders.

"Whereas, due to the explosive growth in the Township there are fewer opportunities than ever for development of properties in the comprehensive manner that would best serve the Township's future needs," the ordinance stated.

The airport's 2005 Master Plan provided a blueprint for development of tax ratables to support the public business.

In 2005, Richard Orne, chairman of the Lakewood Airport Authority, told a reporter that the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) viewed the airport as critical to homeland security.

That same year, Committeeman Marc (Meir) Lichtenstein, a Lakewood property manager, volunteered to serve as the only member of a subcommittee tasked with investigating whether the airport should continue to remain an airport.

In its' place, Lichtenstein reportedly sought to know whether it could instead be redeveloped as residential housing.

He concluded it could not.

In order to redevelop the public business as something else, the township would have had to repay millions of dollars in FAA loans it received in the 1990s to buy the property from private owners.

Lakewood's public and its' private for-profit businesses are continuing to fight for their lives in the township's industrial parks, which were developed in the 1960s and 1970s to provide residents with a new source of employment after Lakewood's decline as a tourist destination.

In 2011 Lakewood Industrial Commission (LIC) director Yisroel (Steven) Reinman received correspondence from Victor Iorio, owner of a business located in the Lakewood industrial park. In his correspondence, which many other business owners in the park also signed, Iorio told Reinman that public policy permitting schools to open in the industrial park increased the cost of doing business there. Iorio said that while he supported the education of school children, their presence in the park exposed companies doing business there to greater liability risk.

The business owners threatened to leave Lakewood, according to Iorio's correspondence, which NJ News & Views reported five years ago.

In response, LIC members hired a part-time assistant to research the how much tax revenue the township stood to lose if the industrial park's remaining tax ratables left.

A reporter for NJ News & Views requested to inspect the report under the Open Public Records Act (OPRA), but was denied access to it.

That was then.

This year, Reinman's commissioners approved a lucrative multi-million-dollar contract with Iorio Construction to build T-hangars at the airport.

The July 13, 2016 LIC meeting agenda reported a $171,441.00 change order, increasing the amount of Iorio Construction's contract from $2,208,638.00 to $2,380,079.00.

After receiving a copy of the final meeting agenda under OPRA, a reporter asked LIC part-time employee Anita Doyle in an e-mail request for comment if Iorio Construction had any previous experience building airport T-hangars.

She did not respond for comment.

Aviators that use the airport's new T-hangars will have to take any other business they seek to conduct somewhere else, thanks to the failure of committeemen to adopt an ordinance at their July 21 meeting that would have amended the township zoning map by designating an airport business commercial zone district on it.

Behind closed doors, public officials are discussing plans to redevelop the township without the input of Lakewood residents and taxpayers.

A decade after this editor/reporter for NJ News & Views had to lobby local government for release of the 2006 Master Plan Advisory Committee meeting minutes, members of a new Master Plan Advisory Committee, appointed in 2016, are once again meeting in secret, without public notice and without public attendance.

In spite of public policy, Lakewood residents and taxpayers do have a say in how their government is run.

Every year, Lakewood Township asks voters to elect candidates to a seat on the growing municipality's local governing body, the Lakewood Township Committee. The five seats that each carry a 3-year term are filled in staggered elections.

Candidates seeking election to one of those seats must submit a petition with the required number of signatures on it to the Lakewood township clerk for certification.

Every year, voters also have an opportunity to remove elected representatives before the end of their 3-year term.

They can recall elected representatives by also collecting signatures on a petition and submitting it to the township clerk for certification. Once certified, the petition triggers a special election to fill the seat of any recalled representative with someone else of the voters' choosing.

This year, incumbent Lakewood Committeeman Aisik (Albert/Isaac) Akerman, a Republican, is seeking re-election to the Lakewood Township Committee. However, incumbent Committeemen Raymond (Ray) Coles, a Democrat, and Michael (Mike) D'Elia, a Republican, are eligible for recall.

Next year, incumbent Committeemen Menashe Miller, a Republican, and Marc (Meir) Lichtenstein, a Democrat, will be eligible for recall.

No public official should take any vote for granted, let alone his re-election to office.

Public service is a privilege, not an employment opportunity.

In a May 14, 2016 e-mail, a reader of this blog told its' editor that in his opinion, "Elections breed corruption."

This editor/reporter stressed the importance of a free and open press in ensuring free and open elections.

"An educated electorate is the best defense against tyranny," she told this blog's reader.